A bedrock claim of the small group led by Arizona businessman Ammon Bundy is that the Constitution limits federal ownership of land. As a result, they say, the federal government is violating Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 by illegally holding about 76 percent of Harney County.
But scholars say Bundy and his followers are misreading the Constitution.
"You have to read the entire document and not just the clauses and provisions that you think support your case," said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel of the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center, which monitors legal application of the Constitution.
I've encountered other constitutional scholars in comment threads. It's hard to believe how many are around. Unfortunately, I am not one. I do believe that all land as it was acquired (stolen from Native Americans) became property of the US government.
Bundy told an FBI negotiator Thursday that his group already is examining land records to identify previous owners. But which records they're researching isn't clear.
Officials at the Harney County Assessor's Office, which tracks property ownership, and the Clerk's Office, which keeps the record of deeds, say no one in recent weeks has approached them to examine the records.
Be careful what you don't wish for.
The wildlife refuge, with headquarters about 30 miles southeast of Burns, is a symbol of Bundy's overarching demand. He wants the land turned over to the county.
But Harney County isn't interested in becoming the refuge's landlord.
"If they gave it to us, where would the money come from to operate that?" said Steve Grasty, Harney County judge, a non-judicial position that operates the same as chair of the county commission.
The refuge employs 17 people to handle day-to-day operations. The entire Harney County county government full-time workforce numbers 102. Grasty said operating the refuge would cost millions that the county doesn't have.
The county's options would be limited, he said, including laying off employees to free up money for refuge management, closing the refuge or selling off parcels of the refuge to raise money.
Bundy acknowledged this week when talking to an FBI agent that he didn't know what practical steps he could take to get the refuge land and buildings out of federal control.
"We could put more thought to that," he said.
That last statement would probably make a great epitaph for pretty much anyone in the Bundy Gang.